A Brief History of the Guitar

Jimi Hendrix

In many history books, even some that are highly rated, you will read that the guitar was invented by the classical-era Greeks. This is due to a simple mistake. The Greeks had an instrument which they called a Kithara. As this was a stringed instrument and that the name resembles closely that of the guitar, historians tend to assume that this was a guitar. The Kithara was in fact a type of lyra or harp, nothing to do with the guitar. Also, if you look at ancient Egyptian paintings, you will see many musical instruments which could easily be mistaken for a guitar. Even by those of us who have been playing the instrument for twenty years.

The fact is that, quite often, in these ancient paintings, the instruments in question were used as religious objects and were not even played. Through rigorous study, it becomes obvious that the guitar is not an ancient musical instrument.

Closer to us in time, most of us will think of the lute as a direct ancestor to the guitar. This is indeed correct. Think of it as the “father” of the guitar. The lute, this instrument favored by troubadours of the dark ages and the renaissance, more closely resembles a modern bass than a guitar. Usually, it had four strings which would be plucked. One could not strum a lute.

The body of the lute was oval and the back was rounded, sort of like an Ovation guitar. The result of this was that the lute was not a loud instrument. Hence, it could not be played in any kind of band setting.

Now, to get from the lute to the guitar, many elements are missing. One of these is the treble strings. Another the pinched waist. Finally, the flat back of the instrument.

In comes the vihuela. Think of it as the “mother” of the guitar. This instrument was developed in Spain in the 15th century. The vihuela has a slightly pinched waist, a smaller body than the lute and treble strings, in pairs, called courses, which were made to be strummed.

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It’s about a hundred years later, some time during the 16th century that someone (nobody will ever know who) had the idea of mixing the two instruments together. Making the body more like that of the vihuela, but sized closer to that of the lute. The neck was closer to that of the vihuela. Finally, both bass and treble strings were added to the instrument.

The first examples of this instrument are very crude. Some very beautiful models were made by violin maker Stradivarius. But the instrument was still far from being as complex as its modern counterpart.

It’s toward the end of the eighteenth century that we can start talking about the modern guitar. This was a time when the US were electing their first president, Britain was in the throes of the first industrial revolution and Napoleon seized power in France.

I’ve often heard how Art achieves its greatest moments when civilization is in the midst of conflict or pressure. Just look at the Rock and Roll revolution during the cold war. One could find many examples of this sort. I don’t know whether any studies have actually ever been done, but I’d certainly be interested in reading one.

At any rate, it’s at this moment that the modern guitar makes its first appearance. It’s unclear whether this was in France or in Italy. But here was an instrument very similar to the ones we see today, with six strings.

This is when the machine head was invented and so the old wooden peg box, used to hold the strings and tune them was discarded. It’s also at this time that guitar makers started carving the heads of guitars. Although they usually aren’t carved nowadays, makers still leave their mark on the headstock. A very old tradition.

In the late 18th century, José Pagés and Josef Benedid started adding fan-shaped struts inside the body of the guitar in order to amplify the sound. This method was picked up by other guitar makers, such as François Lacôte in Paris. It’s also at this point that the “floating arm technique” came about. Previously, one rested the little finger of the right hand on the sound board. This was a technique which had been handed down from lute players.

But the finishing touches, involving volume and tone, were added by Antonio de Torres Jurado. He increased the size of the body, increased the distance between the bridge and the nut and improved on the fan shape of the struts. The result being that finally a guitar could be played with an orchestra. Previously, the sound of the guitar would be completely buried by that of the other instruments. However, that still did not make it a popular instrument.

Well, popular with the masses, just not with the “serious” musical community. During the 1950’s, Julian Bream (only one of the greatest names related to the classical guitar) was threatened with expulsion from the music college for playing his guitar on the premises.

The first college level guitar course in the UK was given by John Williams (apart from his classical work, Williams has played for such people as Sky (the original Sky, not the pop outfit from a few years ago), Kate Bush, David Bowie, and many, many others). This course was given, for the first time, in 1965. Hence, and contrary to popular belief, not many of the older guitar heroes are classically trained.

The guitar, being such an easy instrument to learn (not play well, but at least learn a few basic chords and songs), became very popular within the masses. Especially in South America where it immediately became a hit. In Europe and North America, though, it was snobbed at. Even today, there are very few concertos written for the guitar, as it is still snobbed at by many people in the classical community.

The 20th century has seen most of the instrument’s improvements. First, the old cat gut strings were replaced by metal and nylon strings. Then, the classical (or Spanish) guitar was modified to make the acoustic guitar in an attempt to have an even louder sounding instrument.

Many attempts to electrify the instrument were made, primarily by Martin. Here came the invention of the pick-up.

The pick up is generally a coil of fine copper wire wound around a bar magnet. This generates a magnetic field. Once the strings move into this field, they generate pulses of electrical energy which are transmitted to the amp.

The first amps came out toward the end of the 1930’s. However, the main improvements were made by Leo Fender. The first electric guitars were hollow bodied models. Although these look fantastic and sound great, they are quite inconvenient on stage where the sound coming from the amps tend to make the instrument vibrate and thus create feedback. If you ever have a chance to see B.B. King live, notice that he stuffs the inside of Lucille with a towel to diminish the vibration.

Enter Les Paul. His first electric hard-body guitar was basically a log (it was even called “the log”) with a neck and two double-coil pick-ups set into it. He gave it its distinctive look in order to make it more attractive, then sold the idea to Gibson. And they still make it.

Leo Fender was another innovator in the milieu. Coming up with the Telecaster for country music, then later with the Stratocaster. Note that Leo Fender sold the company in 1965 as he was convinced he had little time to live. He sold the company to CBS for $13 million dollars. He came back during the seventies and left again as he didn’t agree with the quality of the work being done by the company. Eventually they were bought out by a Japanese company who created the Squire series with much less than impressive results.

Another innovation of Leo Fender is the bass. He invented this instrument for live bands. Because of the electric guitar, bass notes, played on a contrabass could not be heard live. Fender thought of creating a bass based on a guitar. The first model was the Fender Precision Bass.

Another strange guitar that was produced in the 1930’s is the Dobro. The first one was made in 1926 by National. This looks like an acoustic guitar, except that the body is made of aluminium. At the back of the front panel are resonator plates (hence, this type of guitar is also known as “resonator”). A Dobro doesn’t need to be plugged in to sound loud. The aluminium body produces a sound which is quite distinctive.

Since then, many experiments have been tried. Mainly in an attempt at getting more sustain or because of the scarcity of certain woods, various materials have been tried. Acrylic being one of them. Although it looks fantastic and does wonder to sustain, it can do weird things toward the tone of the instrument.

In an attempt to come up with a material that would be lighter, yet denser than wood, Steinberger invented graphite. Many professional guitarists swear by it.

Go visit guitar manufacturer’s websites, or just visit a guitar store and you’ll see strange things. Such as two solid wood plates, front and back, sandwiching a cork body. All in all, and by the looks of things, the instrument’s progression is far from over.